Commentary by Jay Greeson
The silence of this Third Saturday in October has been overwhelming, and not just because it’s really the fourth Saturday of the month.
It’s Tennessee-Alabama. The rivalry of Peyton and Palmer in recent generations and of too many stars and legends to mention through the years. The matchup of subpoenas and secrecy. The showdown of anger and passion and hatred and ultimately respect, albeit grudging.
Today is the 93rd rendition of what is the yearly fight between the two most storied college football programs in college football’s most storied conference. And it feels nothing like a showdown of powerhouses. It feels more like a wrestling match between big brother and little brother than anything remotely resembling a slugfest.
Considering these teams have met every year since 1944, the metamorphoses of the Third Saturday in October to another day on the schedule happened almost overnight. And that night was two years ago when the Tide came to Knoxville.
It was the haymaker that downed Phillip Fulmer and sent the Volunteers into a 13-month tryst with a West Coast floozy. It was the night that Alabama coach Nick Saban made the Vols look like the Commodores. It was the night that the lasting image from the nationally televised 29-9 Alabama win was a UT fan with a bag over his head. It was the night that the lasting sound was a half-empty stadium with thousands of Crimson Tide fans singing.
Sure, Fulmer was ultimately sacked the following week after another wretched performance at South Carolina, but in the realm of college football, where home games are events that make or break weekends, the home loss is the most painful. And the home loss to your rivals — especially a beatdown to Alabama — was the one that turned the tide of public opinion on Fulmer.
For Alabama it was another spring in its step in its recent run of overpowering success.
“Not much,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said when asked what he remembered from his last trip to Knoxville. “I remember our team played a good game and I felt like we executed. We stayed focused in a tight game, and the big turning point was the fumble.”
The fumble that wasn’t — after a review, Mark Ingram was ruled down on a fumble that Eric Berry returned for what would have been a Tennessee touchdown — was just a blip. The physical beating lasted a while longer.
Last year’s Alabama escape rivaled the whipping of Georgia as the highlight of Lane Kiffin’s brief run in Knoxville after replacing Fulmer. Now Derek Dooley is charged with rebuilding the Vols, of restocking the talent base and reshaping the image.
Mainly Dooley is responsible for cleaning the mess that was started two years this weekend, and in turn remaking a rivalry that is as rich as any in the country.
“Anybody who grew up liking college football paid attention to this game, whether you were a fan of Tennessee or Alabama or not,” said Dooley, who grew up following the Bulldogs whom his father coached for more than two decades. “I know I was one of those kids that saw how special this game was — and I told our team that.”
Last year’s dogfight was how it should be, and I believe how it will be again. But not this year and not this day. Last season the Vols had two first-round NFL draft picks — Berry and defensive tackle Dan Williams — on a defense that was outstanding. This Vols defense has two former walk-ons in the starting lineup and will face its most physical challenge to date.
Dooley has pledged to play freshman quarterback Tyler Bray meaningful snaps today, a move that could create a quarterback controversy or even get the slight-framed Bray mangled.
You know what? Good. Sure, quarterback Matt Simms has been serviceable through the first half of the season, but this is Tennessee and serviceable should be the bottom line of what is acceptable. The Vols don’t need serviceable to get back to the level of Alabama in the SEC.
They need information. Which player on the roster will compete — in good times and bad and against the good teams and bad. Which players can be stars. Plus, remember that Bray was a Kiffin recruit, and while he has shown promise, if Dooley’s not sold on him, the Vols’ first-year coach needs to know now. And how better to get a read on any player than to test him against Alabama.
Two years ago, the results of that test showed everyone that major changes were needed. The results of those changes have been mixed, but the tests must continue until the Vols are back.
This day must not be another stop on the schedule. No, as soon as possible this needs to be the Third Saturday in October, even when it’s the fourth Saturday in October.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...